Public Broadcasting at Home and Abroad

After living in the United Kingdom for four months, and studying the British media system, it became clear to me that the way the United States looks at public broadcasting is not the way most of Europe sees it. Most Americans don’t think of PBS as their main source of news. According to a 2013 Gallop poll, more people get their news from the BBC than PBS.

The British public broadcasting system has a much larger presence in the United Kingdom because it was the only television news presence for decades. It remains prevalent today because it is funded by every household in Britain. Each year, every household is required to pay £147 (about $190) to access the BBC’s programming which includes a vast network of television and radio stations.

Besides the obvious difference in funding, the BBC also puts out programming that reaches a higher percentage of Britain’s population than may (if any) shows in the U.S. One example of the BBC’s popular programming is “The Great British Bake Off” which reached almost 15 million with their finale last October. That’s nearly a quarter of the population of the United Kingdom.

Much of the BBC’s programming makes it back to the U.S. as well, like in PBS’s Masterpiece series which has included shows like “Sherlock”. Maybe with enough funding, PBS would be able to increase the quality of their programming to rival shows like those seen on other public broadcasting stations around the world, and create a sort of upward spiral, where funding benefits programming, and programming benefits funding.

PBS and Diversity

Public broadcasting is funded by the viewers who watch the programing and so one would assume that their broadcasting should reflect the public who fund them. According to a study done in 2006 by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), this doesn’t seem to be the case. Despite people within the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS declaring that they are indeed a source for fair reporting, the guests they brought onto their evening news broadcast, Newshour, seems to lean in a very specific direction.

Although PBS describes their audience as more likely to participate in politics and to have voted in recent elections, this study shows that the political view these viewers are getting tended to be Republican during the time period studied. National Public Media also states that PBS users are almost 90% more likely to check the nutrition facts on a food label, but are they putting that same attention into making sure that the network they help fund is sticking to their statements on giving fair coverage?

It is unfair for a station claim they are the “even-headed” choice when they are spending more time on one party than another. I think in this situation, if a company is going to claim to be funded by the public for the public, they should be catering to the whole public, not just the white males or the government officials. Experts can come from all ends of the spectrum and especially in a case where the company is not being transparent about their biases when it comes to guests, they should work harder to bring a wider array of voices to the conversation.

Investigative Comedy

The first segment I ever saw from “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” was a twenty minute piece on infrastructure. It was the first time I had ever even learned about the crumbling infrastructure in this country apart from my dad swearing about how the highways had too many pot holes. With the average attention span reaching new lows, I think adding a little comedy to hard news is a good thing. Oliver’s ability to keep viewers entertained throughout a twenty minute piece of what is essentially investigative journalism is all due to the punchlines at the end of every fact.

In producing comedy, late night hosts like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah can point out harsh truths in a way mainstream journalists shy away from. Just like indies that cover corruption in a relentless and transparently biased way, these comedians can say what many are thinking without the fear of losing their credibility because they aren’t walking the fake, unbiased line in the middle of the political spectrum.

The idea that there can be mainstream media conglomerates that foster an environment for comedians to act as journalists but not letting their own journalists report on the truth is a troubling concept. Do we have to make a joke of the truth in order to tell it?If so, maybe we should all start working on our comedy.

Competition isn’t Just Good for Journalism, It’s Good for Communication

We’ve seen time and time again how the dying daily press has given way to less coverage and one-sided perspectives, but could it be true that the cable conglomerates are slowing down the way we communicate too. According to an article in “The Week,” this could be exactly what’s happening. With internet speeds that lag behind thirty other countries, the United States is in the slow lane in an age that is becoming increasingly reliant on the internet.

The idea of cable monopolies in each city and town is something we don’t think twice about until a bill hike or service slows down. If we were to experience a price hike at our local mechanic, it would seem obvious to go to a competitor who will preform the service for less. But in this case, there’s often only one mechanic in town and the quality of the service, no matter how high the cost, is slow and not always reliable.

Just as it took years for cable companies to cut out their pieces of the country to control, it won’t just let them go overnight. With people like former lobbyists for the cable companies in charge of regulations, this process isn’t likely to be any easier. We may have invented the internet, but we invented a whole lot a problems with how to share it as well. Large companies have created an environment that doesn’t let the little guy have a shot in fostering their business, and it is through this system of only allowing the large companies to get bigger, that none of these companies have gotten any better in the mean time.

Excluding the Mainstream, but Giving Rise to Journalism

When Mayhill Fowler recorded and subsequently reported then future president Barak Obama saying that people who lost their jobs were “cling[ing] to guns or religion,” it showed yet again that citizen journalism can make a difference. Even though we have lived in an internet age for well over a decade, politicians still make the mistake of letting down their guard in front of people they believe are outside of the press.

In the two stories Fowler wrote that sparked controversy in the 2008 election, I see a huge difference in the ethics she employs to get her information. In my mind, there’s nothing wrong with filming a public event and reporting on what a politician says during a speech to a room full of people. Whether she went to the dinner as a supporter of the candidate or as a reporter, she still is within her rights to share the information she gathered at that dinner.

The other story Fowler broke, which involves former President Bill Clinton calling a journalist “slimy” and “sleazy” for writing a piece he did not agree with about him, Fowler is not simply a by-stander collecting information, she takes a solid stance as a journalist by asking President Clinton a question. What I see as the problem here is her question itself. She calls the story a “hack-job,” which is a fairly leading statement. In a Salon article following the incident, the co-founder of OffTheBus which Fowler wrote for, says that it could have been better if Fowler addressed herself as a member of the press, but writes off her blurting out a question like that as something that any journalist would do in the moment. I disagree with that because we are told time and again as journalism students not to lead the interviewee. Sure we may forget to identify ourselves, but it doesn’t take much to notice a recording device and a press badge and make the assumption that someone is a reporter.

I think that the information Fowler gathered is good reporting in the case of President Obama’s comments, but I wonder if the diatribe she got from Bill Clinton was consequential enough to warrant asking such a leading question.

Somewhere Between Money and Exposure

When the Huffington Post was sold to AOL in 2011, critics had a lot to say about what was wrong with the deal. In an article in the Guardian, media critics’ attacks of the blog are detailed from the fallout after the announcement. The story surrounding this deal is not a sudden turnaround of the publication so much as the last straw as large – as large a straw as it may be – in the evolution of the Huffington Post.

In an internet age, it’s nothing new to see critics of journalists who use the internet to their advantage. When watching the rise of a blog or content creator on any platform, when ordinary people become stars, others become critical of how they got there. In the case of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington had a formula that worked. She found a voice for people who felt as though they weren’t being heard in the mainstream media, and she found a community of writers willing to share their work with a community of readers.

We’ve said time and again what sets bloggers apart is their ability to communicate with their audience and what has happened here is not different. What went wrong with Huffington Post was not its creator’s exploitation of willing bloggers, it was her ability to put the community that trusted her in the hands of the mainstream. If the blog made $315 million without the help of a large company, I don’t think as many people would have a problem with that. Money isn’t the issue here, it is Huffington’s willingness to cash out, leaving her community without its founder.

Controlling the Independent Media

In an article from the New York Times on the Hartford Courant’s purchase of the Advocate chain, we look once again at the idea of how large conglomerates purchasing many publications across a market affects the audience. Coming from Western Mass where the kennel I work for proudly displays their “Valley Advocate Best of” stickers in the office, the Advocate still looks like an independent weekly with its hyperlocal coverage and issues you wouldn’t see in the Hartford Courant or Springfield Republican.

The problem with this acquisition is one of principle as well as one of possible censorship of these papers. In Hartford, it is important to have competitive journalism, and with only one daily for the entire city, having an alternative weekly can keep that sole paper in check. Though the publisher of the Courant says she thinks the Advocate can keep the Courant “on its toes,” it is only logical for writers to be worried about offending the boss.

In selling an alternative paper to a large media company, it no longer stays an independent publication. The paper can stay true to its readers and try to continue the same reporting, but if the publisher begins to disagree with what is being covered, then they have the final say, not the readers. Even if the Courant has allowed the Advocate chain to continue publishing as normal, there’s no way to say for sure that they won’t change their minds about allowing critical coverage of their paper.

Legal Insurrection

When talking to Bill Jacobson, I was surprised by the similarities and differences in his perspective on blogging was compared to what I’ve been taught in my time at Ithaca College. Looking at blogging from the perspective of a journalist, the internet is a medium that is constantly changing, and while Jacobson’s blog has evolved since it was started nearly a decade ago, he seemed uninterested in optimizing his blog to be the most efficient it could be in driving revenue. I think that Jacobson’s ability to blog while not solely being a “blogger” is also what attracts readers to the blog.

While there are many aspects of the blog that may not be ideal for business, it is Jacobson’s ability to stick with what has worked in terms of content that seems to be one of the blog’s biggest strengths. Legal Insurrection’s model for success seems to rely on readers’ interest in the content of the site. It is interesting to see such a variety of topics because of the different author’s interest areas. Especially on a site where content is so important, and Jacobson commented on how quickly posts are pushed off the homepage, having such a wide variety of articles could cause readers to miss an article on a subject they are looking for. On the other hand, this could attract more readers, making it a positive innovation in the site.

Though the website is clearly designed by a professional, Legal Insurrection has many elements of the blogs of ten years ago that Jacobson talked about. The featured post of the day along with the daily video and blog feature draw readers back daily. These features, if they are what readers are coming from, also draw attention down the page, showing readers more articles and more of the money making features of the blog such as the donation buttons and the Amazon affiliate links. The blog is built for the readers in many aspects and not for business which seems to be working well, especially in an age where even conservatives are looking for an educated explanation for current events.

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Nonprofit Journalists A Wealth of Information

It isn’t news that mainstream media is deeply entangled with big business and government powers, so it shouldn’t be surprising that independent media continues to shed light on the truth even if it isn’t covered by the mainstream and sometimes even conflicts with mainstream reports. Vincent Stehle’s article on the rise of nonprofit media in light of the war in Iraq describes a resurgence of independent outlets and more generally the impact these publications make.

Gabriel Arana’s article on antigay “therapy” leading to an advocate rescinding a study supporting the practice isn’t all that different from Upton Sinclair’s work changing legislature concerning the meatpacking industry. Social movements have historically been sparked or supported by members of the independent press, so to see a revival of this isn’t surprising.

Streitmatter’s chapter on the surge of dissident press of the late 1960s highlights another period in which the independent press was a strong force in forming the opinions of the younger generation. Their commentaries on the war in Vietnam are no different than the journalists revealing truths about the war in Iraq decades later. Unlike the early 1970s, the current age of independent publications hasn’t seen as drastic a decline in the number or strength of publications if any at all. It remains to be seen whether today’s publications will taper off or another social movement will make them even more important and relevant, but as current events unfold, the latter seems more probable.

 

The Noble Pursuit of the Truth

Though George Seldes died over two decades ago, his impression on journalism is lasting and his decades long pursuit of critiquing the media is as relevant as ever. It often takes someone observing an institution from the inside to truly realize what wrongs are taking place, and Seldes’s start in mainstream media is evidence of that.

Seldes was not afraid to do what many people in the mainstream media fear, tell the truth and offend people in power. The decision of whether or not to publish an article is dictated by moral dilemmas as often as it is about whether or not the magazine’s advertisers or a friend of the owner will be offended. Seldes had no fear in publishing the truth and that in turn scared those in power whether it was big business or large newspapers. Though eventually these forces were able to bring down In Fact, it is important work that Seldes did.

His impact is evident in not only how large his readership was, but those who read it and their commitment to continue telling the truth when it is least convenient to those in power. In a time when the mainstream media is being criticized and barred from press briefings by people within the government, it is important to remember that a press independent of ties to power is a good thing. Not owing any favors to business entangled in the government is an advantage in a time when the government needs to be checked as much as the mainstream media itself, and I think that Seldes’s legacy is a good reminder of that.

Controlling Birth Control

Margret Sanger is seen as a sort of hero on the issue of birth control in the United States. She was a champion of women’s right to know about their own body and how it works, but as is true with any famous figure throughout history, her life isn’t as two-dimensional as history makes it out to be. Malveaux’s article highlights the flaws in Sanger’s crusade for women’s rights, flaws that reflect of the character of Sanger herself.

An issue that is masqueraded as arguing for the right to reproduce only for those who are “fit” to do so, forced sterilization targeted black Americans and other “feebleminded” individuals. It is shocking to read that this is a practice that continued into the latter half of the twentieth century. While Sanger did go on to help W.B. DuBois with his efforts to get black women in the South birth control, Malveaux doesn’t forgive her for publishing such racially insensitive articles earlier in her career. I think that she is right in not forgiving Sanger because, even if she did not realize she was targeting an entire race of people, forced sterilization is still not something that is not easily forgotten about.

In the chapter from Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution on Sanger, he mentions her many affairs. Her position as a well-off woman with enough independence to run her own publication allowed her the ability to have these affairs with seemingly little consequence. Stephanie Coontz’s book Marriage: A History, mentions at one point that a large number of forced sterilizations were preformed on those who were deemed too sexual. This of course is not something that applied to women like Sanger.

Sanger’s legacy will continue to highlight her triumphs in making birth control available to women and founding what would become Planned Parenthood, but her stance on forced sterilization isn’t something to be forgotten about.

Social Media Revolution

We are so often taught that social media can be a dangerous place where people can create posts that spread to thousands before they can be taken down, but the uprising in Egypt shows that this may not be a bad thing. In a state where expression is threatened by police retaliation, the anonymity of the internet is a strength, not a threat.

Citizen journalism and the individual blogger can make a large impact in countries where state media is censored because these writers or videographers can tell a story without fear of loosing the things professional journalists typically hold dear. They can not loose their place on a newspaper staff or their carefully curated sources because they don’t have those to begin with. This allows them to walk a line between caring enough about the topic they’re covering and not caring enough about the consequences of covering it. In the case of the French government, a French commentator told the New York Times, “We now have politicians who are scared.” When the government is scared that they will be held accountable for their actions, it’s a good thing for the citizens they are serving.

As it can be seen in the case of the uprising in Egypt, once a presence has been established online, it is hard to quell the voices behind it. The New York Times reported that even when pro-Mubarak supporters joined the conversation trying to prevent further protests, they  were unsuccessful in their attempts.

Populist movements are nothing new, but the ability to mobilize quickly across large distances is. The past decade has seen a number of uprisings that have clearly shown the power of social media. It remains to be seen whether this form of media will continue to give power through knowledge to oppressed groups, but I don’t see social media activism going anywhere.

Blogs May Rival the Mainstream Media

Over a decade ago, two bloggers proved that investigative journalism isn’t reserved for the mainstream media. In 2004, Scott Johnson and Charles Johnson became whistle-blowers, questioning a “60 Minutes” report containing what seemed to be false documents about President George W. Bush’s Air National Service. In a Washington Post article following the discovery, one blogger called the scandal, “the blog’s breakthrough moment.” In the thirteen years since the scandal, blogs have only become more prevalent in today’s society and have found a spot in journalism that continues to grow.

While blogs have their notable and obvious downfalls such as a lack of editors to fact-check or even filter content, the internet age has allowed blogs to rise in credibility as well as popularity. Advertisement and donations from subscribers has allowed blogs the capital to bring in professionally trained journalists, giving sites credibility, but also reporters with practical and ethical skill sets. In the case of “The Intercept”, an independent news source, award-winning blogger Glenn Greenwald was brought on by billionaire Pierre Omidyar to help found the site. This multi-million dollar investment shows the quick evolution of the blog from a single reporter in their own home, to a driving force, focused on ground-breaking journalism.

If there is anything blogs have always had on their side, it is speed. The Washington Post article highlights that the first post questioning the “60 Minutes” report appeared less than four hours after the segment aired. Even in modern times, when the online newspaper is eclipsing it’s print counterpart, there are only so many reporters in the newsroom. This ties in with the passion with which bloggers approach their topic. In a time when the number of reports in a newsroom is being cut, those remaining are stretched thinner between multiple beats. The internet is filled with what seems to be an endless supply of blogs, meaning there is someone out there who cares about eh topic willing to cover it.

As blogs continue to grow in size and add professional journalists to their ranks, it won’t be surprising to see more cases in which bloggers become whistle-blowers not only for the government, but also for their mainstream competition.